Chan Chun Sing: Heartlander with eye on big picture

Then Minister for Social And Family Development Chan Chun Sing greeting residents at the annual Chinese New Year dinner for his Tanjong Pagar GRC and the single-seat constituency of Radin Mas on Feb 4, 2014.
Then Minister for Social And Family Development Chan Chun Sing greeting residents at the annual Chinese New Year dinner for his Tanjong Pagar GRC and the single-seat constituency of Radin Mas on Feb 4, 2014. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - It was way past midnight and Mr Sitoh Yih Pin and his supporters were still at a counting centre, waiting for the electoral result of the Potong Pasir single-member constituency.

Finally, at 3am, the recount was over and it was the last result in the 2011 General Election. 

Victory was declared for Mr Sitoh who, with his supporters, returned to Toa Payoh Stadium.

It was 4am and there was hardly anyone there.

But waiting for them was Mr Chan Chun Sing, one of the People's Action Party's (PAP) new candidates who was widely seen as a potential minister and possibly leading the fourth generation (4G) of Singapore's leaders.

That incident on May 8, 2011, the day after the general election's Polling Day, is etched in Mr Sitoh's mind as it told him about the man and his leadership style.

He told The Straits Times on Friday (Nov 23): "This was one of the 4G stars, PM Lee was going to unveil him at a press conference, he didn't know me well at the time. And yet he was there. As long as the last platoon has not come home, he's not going anywhere."

Mr Chan, who had just left his role as the Chief of Army to join politics, was elected an MP in Tanjong Pagar GRC in the April 2011 General Election and within a month was named to the Cabinet as Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports and Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts.

At age 41, he was the youngest in Cabinet.

But politics initially had its bumps for the military man, who had spent 24 years in the Singapore Armed Forces.

In the 2011 General Election rally, he was ridiculed by some people for using the Hokkien phrase "kee chiu", meaning "raise your hand", when posing a question to some elderly folk at a PAP rally.

Perhaps the down-to-earth, chatty style had endeared the former Chief of Army to his men in green but in politics, many suggest his folksy approach seems out of step for a potential bigwig in the Government who would represent Singapore on the world stage.

Online critics were especially harsh but Mr Chan seemed to have stayed true to his heartlander ways.

His informal style of speaking continues to be peppered with colloquialisms and Chinese dialect phrases.

In 2013, as the Minister for Social and Family Development, he famously described the Government's strategy of offering overlapping layers of support to Singapore's needy as a "kueh lapis".

Over the years, Mr Chan's work evidently speaks for itself because on Friday evening, he was picked by the PAP as its second assistant secretary-general.

The position puts him on track to be elevated to Deputy Prime Minister in the not too distant future.

It has been a swift rise up the ranks for the 49-year-old Trade and Industry Minister.

A year after joining the Cabinet, he took charge of the newly created Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and the following year, 2013, he was promoted to full minister and given what could be called a "homecoming" role: Second Minister for Defence.

Unlike in the past, the new ministry has added significance in a Singapore embarking on building an inclusive society.

Mr Chan introduced several key initiatives to strengthen Singapore's social safety net and support for families.

They include the Partner Operator scheme and the Vulnerable Adults Act.

The first gives eligible childcare operators government funding if they keep their childcare fees affordable, raise the quality of care and education, and improve the career and professional development opportunities for teachers.

As for vulnerable adults, the Act passed by Parliament earlier this year, some four years after Mr Chan first mooted such laws, gave MSF's officials sweeping powers to enter private premises to assess a person's well-being and move those who are abused or deemed at high risk to a temporary safe place.

 
 
 
 

In May 2015, he became chief of the labour movement.

In his three years as secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), he expanded its scope to include more white-collar workers and professionals, managers and executives (PMEs), a group that is growing fast and will make up two-thirds of the workforce by 2030.

He championed training and skills upgrading for workers, pushing for NTUC to introduce initiatives such as the Union Training Assistance Programme to defray training costs for union members, and the Career Activation Programme, which supports jobless PMEs.

Mr Ken Tan, the president of the Public Utilities Board Employees' Union, said Mr Chan's down-to-earth manner helped him relate easily to the unionists.

"You can tell when you talk to him that he has the big picture in mind but he knows how to speak the unionists' language," he said. "I learnt this from him - that when you are delivering a speech, focus on three key messages. Any more than that and the audience cannot remember."

Since joining politics, Mr Chan has hardly stayed beyond three years in a position.

In April this year, a Cabinet reshuffle resulted in a new focus - he now helms the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Also, he was named Minister-in-charge of the Public Service.

The new ministry is a new challenge, intensified by the rising tide of protectionism across the world, coupled by the trade wars brewing among global giants China and the United States, while Singapore continues to push for open and free trade.

Amid this turbulent backdrop, Mr Chan collected a few wins.

A free trade deal between the European Union and Singapore was inked last month.

Meanwhile, enough progress has been made in the ongoing discussions on the blockbuster Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that leaders predict it can be finalised next year. The RCEP is a trade pact involving all 10 Asean states and six other countries, including China and Japan.

But even as he rose in the Government, Mr Chan did not let up on his commitment to being an MP of Tanjong Pagar GRC.

In interviews and public speaking engagements, he often shares accounts of the residents he encounters at Meet-the-People sessions in his Buona Vista ward to illustrate his views about inequality and people's responsibility towards each other.

At a recent Institute of Policy Studies conference, he shared his encounter with a single mother of six children who needed help to get a job and sought help for employment and $300 in financial aid from the Community Care Endowment Fund (ComCare) for lower-income families.

He contrasted it to a young couple, with a combined five-figure monthly income, who complained they had received only half of a $20,000 grant from the Housing Board.

It was a "surreal" contrast, he said, showing how the more well-off in society can sometimes feel more entitled to government help.

Fellow Tanjong Pagar MP Joan Pereira said since she joined politics in 2015, she has benefited greatly from Mr Chan's clarity of thought and steadfastness in tackling issues both at the national level and on the ground in the GRC.

"He is always keen to find out what residents are feeling, thinking or fearing, and goes the extra mile to address their questions. As a friend, his energy is infectious and he inspires the team to keep working hard," she said.

As the son of a single mother who raised two children on a meagre pay of a machine operator, Mr Chan's frugality is legendary.

When he left the Singapore Armed Forces in 2011, he was given, like all departing officers, an SAF watch. But he continued wearing his old, black, plastic Casio, with the explanation: "The battery hasn't run out." And he continues wearing it today.

Although an old boy of elite Raffles Institution, he gave short shrift to elitism and has strong views about how the successful should give back to society.

At a conference last month, he said: "I would not hold it against somebody, regardless of his background, if he does well and makes a contribution to society. But if someone has done well, not through his own effort but maybe through his connections... and doesn't reach out to people, then that is different."